My visit to the Taj Mahal

Published: October 12, 2013
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People visiting the Taj Mahal on a Sunday holiday. PHOTO: REUTERS

After returning from an action-packed trip to India – with a wedding, a family reunion and a tour of a country rich in culture and tradition – there is so much I want to share! This trip was truly incredible and we are still in a state of wonder and awe.

Our trip began in Delhi and, believe me, landing in Delhi was like arriving in Lahore. The similarities were unbelievable – the people, the roads, the buildings, the architecture and the food all reminded us of things back home. I would not be exaggerating if I said that Delhi and Lahore could be twin cities.

Initially we were sceptical about disclosing our nationality, but after getting to know that we were Pakistanis, people would look at us in fascination and curiosity. Almost everyone had a story to tell – some had relatives in Pakistan, others had shifted to India after partition and still others were simply thrilled to know about Pakistan. Our driver was Sikh and hence, had a special attachment for Lahore and Hassan Abdal. He would vehemently swear that it was only the politicians on both sides who wanted to create differences between the two nations. In his words:

“Yeh sab neta log ki wajah se hai, hum log tou eik hain.”

(It’s all because of these politicians. Otherwise, we all are one.)

The highlight of our trip, of course, was the visit to the Taj Mahal in Agra. After hearing from numerous sources about how magnificent and mesmerising the monument is, we just couldn’t wait to see it for ourselves. We had a brief stay in Delhi where we took tours of the Red Fort, Jama Masjid, Humayun’s tomb and the India Gate and then, it was time to travel to Agra.

Gate of India. Photo: AFP

We hired a car and took the new Yamuna Expressway from Delhi to Agra. The state-of-the-art express way, which is 165 kilometres long and spread over six lanes, is built to reduce travel time between Delhi and Agra. Consequently, it took us approximately two hours to reach Agra. The Yamuna Expressway is said to be one of the best and busiest highways in India. However, once the expressway ended and we entered Agra itself, we were in for a shock.

The impressive highway that we had happily driven on, abruptly became a narrow road with cars screeching and chaotic traffic; and suddenly we found ourselves driving through areas littered with mountains of garbage.

Yamuna Highway. Photo: Reuters

As we drove along, we realised that we were weaving through one of the worst slum areas of the city. These slums represented a different Agra altogether, with urban poverty at its worst.  The living conditions in these areas seemed inhumane and were the result of lack of sanitation, waste management and disposal facilities. From what we could see, the slum dwellers lived in dire conditions without individual toilets and even though there were public toilets, the lack of maintenance and cleaning had rendered them unusable.

To say that we were baffled by this unglamorous side of one of the most sought-after tourist destinations in the world, would be an understatement.

A discussion with our driver/guide made us realise that the similarities between India and Pakistan are more than we imagined. He was of the opinion that the government was corrupt and that the officials filled their own pockets with all the revenues flowing in. After all, with around 50,000 tourists visiting the monument every day, paying an entry fee of about £10 per person, it would seem that there would be enough for developing infrastructure and improving the slums.

Pollution near the Taj Mahal has given the white marble a yellowish tinge. Photo: Reuters

It was 6:00 p.m. by the time we reached the city centre of Agra, so we decided to call it a day and headed to the hotel. The next morning we got up before sunrise and headed out for the Taj. No cars or buses are allowed within a radius of 500 meters of the monument, to curtail pollution levels. Pollution has become alarmingly high due to smoke emission, fumes from factories and clogged drains around the building and it has affected the colour of the Taj, giving it a yellowish tinge.

The walk up to the monument is lined with handicraft stalls and we met artisans who claimed to be descendants of the labourers involved in the very first construction of the Taj. These artisans have lived in close proximity to the monument for generations and earn their living by crafting souvenirs and other gift items.

The Taj Mahal. Photo: Reuters

There were security checks at the entrance and already a long queue of tourists by the time we got there. However, once we got past the gates, it was like being transported into a different era. We were surrounded by lush green gardens and magnificent Mughal architecture. Even the air seemed majestic. We quickly made our way through the east gate, and lo and behold, the Taj was there in all its glory and splendour.

It was simply breath-taking and the structure looked divine with its white marble gleaming against the clear blue sky. It literally took our breath away and each one of us was engulfed in our own thoughts for a while. Slowly, as if waking up from a slumber, we began the touristy ritual of taking photographs from all angles.

Moving ahead, we found ourselves at the end of yet another queue. People were lined up to get their photos taken on the famous Princess Diana bench. Even though it was next to impossible to have your picture taken without anyone else in the background, we persisted but to no avail.

To think that even at 6:00 a.m. the place was thronged with tourists from different countries, conversing in all sorts of languages from Japanese to French to German and of course Punjabi!

Princess Diana at the Taj Mahal.

After visiting the Taj Mahal, we moved on to the mosque adjacent to it, which is open only for Friday prayers. This mosque is made of red sand stone and has a similar design to the Jama Masjid in Delhi. Interestingly, another building – a replica of the mosque – was constructed on the east side just to balance the overall symmetry of the architecture. This building houses a guest house and is called the Jawab, meaning ‘response’ since its purpose is to harmonise the scenery.

People offering Eid Prayers near the Taj Mahal. Photo: Reuters

Rudyard Kipling, described the Taj Mahal as ‘an embodiment of all things pure’, and it would have been difficult to digest the impurity on the other side had we not seen it with our own eyes. Sadly, the glowing monument, manicured gardens and clear water ponds were a direct contrast to the slums of Agra. Although the Taj, which is considered to be the pride of India and a masterpiece of Mughal architecture, deserves to be well taken care of, it is sad to see that the same care and attention is not given to the people living near it.

Overall, India is an amazing place to visit – secular to the core with mosques, temples, churches and gurdwaras co-existing and open to all. From metros to malls, from high street fashion and fast cars to abject poverty, India has the diversity few nations can claim.

However, with all this diversity, India also has the uncanny ability of making one feel at home.

This post originally appeared here.

Sameea Zafar

Sameea Zafar

Sameea likes to blog about her favourite things to do, wear and eat in the city. She tweets as @SameeaZafar (twitter.com/SameeaZafar)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.